Alumni Honour winner urges all teachers to be changemakers for reconciliation

Not all educators work in schools. For Charlene Bearhead (‘85 BEd), all of Canadian society is a classroom, and the subject she teaches is reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

“The entire country is learning,” says Bearhead.

“Real education, true education, is about opening our minds and expanding our knowledge and understanding, and it’s the key to all positive change. That’s the way we shed light.”

The shedding of light that Bearhead does is on the dark history of colonialism in Canada and its historic and modern trauma on Indigenous peoples. It’s a subject that Bearhead learned from working with Indigenous communities, and she has dedicated a large part of her career as a leading curriculum developer for truth and reconciliation in Canada. Her extensive resume includes education coordinator for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, education coordinator for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, national coordinator for Project of Heart , an inquiry-based, collaborative art project designed to teach Indigenous history, and educational advisor for the Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada project. She currently works at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia as the Education and Programming lead. She started her career teaching in both Alberta and Manitoba, and that experience took her on an unexpected journey.

“I started out in teaching, but I’ve been in education the whole time,” Bearhead says. “I say that the path is there for us, but as we grow and let go of the societal expectations and open ourselves up to the path in front of us, we recognize what that is. That’s really been my journey.”

Bearhead recognizes that her career path is unconventional, but she always knew that she would be in education.

“I always had a real love for children and learning,” says Bearhead. “There was no one thing that brought me to education. In high school, I thought about studying other things, but it always came back to education.”

‘Education where students see themselves is important’

Influenced by her father’s love of lifelong and self-directed learning, Bearhead was on the path to becoming an educator early in her life. From her elementary school teacher who brought a rabbit to her first- grade class to university professors who helped her rethink her approach to teaching, Bearhead understands the power of educators.

“Excellent teachers, professors, and instructors help us see things in a different way and help us see ourselves and find our place in anything,” she says.

“One of my professors that I always remembered, Margaret McNay, she taught that we needed to engage students, to make education relevant and interactive. I think and talk about that so often because really engaging, hands-on, relevant education where students see themselves is so important.”

That philosophy was true for Bearhead’s own experience. Growing up, she hated physical education because it was competitive and she didn’t feel athletic enough. It was two professors at the University of Alberta who helped her see beyond her past experiences, and she ended up minoring in movement education.

“I realized that other kids in school can learn to be active and involved in physical education, and it’s not like you need to have the potential to be an Olympic athlete,” Bearhead says.

“It was more about every child recognizing that they have a place anywhere they want to be, in any aspect of their lifelong learning. It’s not up to other people to determine what their place is or what their opportunities are. It was the realization that kids needed to learn this before I did when I was 20 years old.”

She also sees the potential impact of education on a societal level.

“Regardless of background, heritage, history, we all have to go to school. I think that is the best place to offer opportunities for young people to build connections and relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” says Bearhead. Recognizing that teachers will likely be the first people to educate youth about Canada’s colonial history, Bearhead has some encouraging words of wisdom.

“Whether you are Indigenous or not, we as educators have a responsibility to teach the truth. This is a time when these teachers are the changemakers,” Bearhead says. “Have confidence, will, and moral courage to take the task on, and encourage your students and colleagues to learn with you, and build relationships with Indigenous people, as they walk that path together. In the end, we the teachers, have the responsibility to teach the truth.”

You are invited to see Charlene Bearhead accept the Alumni Honour Award at the Alumni Awards ceremony on Sept. 19 at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium. Reserve your free ticket: